‘Abbott Elementary’, a relatable and hilarious workplace sitcom, is the true successor to ‘The Office’

The comic take on US education is funny, sharp and warm, without veering too saccharine or cynical

Yashfinul Haque
Published : 8 March 2023, 12:55 PM
Updated : 8 March 2023, 12:55 PM

Since The Office, I’ve been looking for a lighthearted workplace comedy to unwind to after ending my usual shift. While many of the writers on that classic show went on to Parks and Recreation, there was an outlandishness to it that didn’t quite match the international relatability of the day-to-day grind at our cubicle jobs. Steve Carrell and Greg Daniels tried to recapture that same magic with Space Force, but the series tanked terribly.

But now comes Abbott Elementary, which feels like the true successor to The Office. It’s as funny, likeable, and down-to-earth, but also has a new, progressive perspective that makes it feel modern too.

The workplace in question is the titular Abbott Elementary, a struggling Philadelphia public elementary school. Like The Office, the audience perspective is that of a documentary crew making a film highlighting the poor condition of the city’s schools.

But, that is, if they can get past the hurricane of enthusiasm and energy that is our lead Janine Teagues. Janine is a nerdy, vivacious, and attention-seeking teacher of the second grade who loves her job despite all of the school’s shortcomings. She’s a bit like Michael Scott, but without the excruciating obliviousness.

Janine is played by the extraordinarily talented Quinta Brunson, known for many viral skits at BuzzFeed in the mid-2010s. Abbot Elementary finds her in peak form, not only acting as the lead, but also serving as a writer and creative head of the show.

Brunson says much of the inspiration for the show came from childhood recollections of her mother, a retired Philadelphia kindergarten teacher, bonding with her co-workers. That personal touch shows as it gives us a more nuanced take on the setting and characters.

The show’s core cast includes deluded and inept principal Ava (Janelle James), veteran teachers Barbara Howard (Sheryl Lee Ralph) and Melissa Schemmenti (Lisa Ann Walter) who are strong-willed beacons of authority, cheesy and clueless liberal Jacob (Chris Perfetti), and Gregory (Tyler James Williams), a substitute teacher who enters the school just as we do.

The characters are simultaneously amusing, cringe-worthy, sympathetic, and surprisingly deep. Brunson’s co-stars do a good job of blending their natural talents as character actors into their roles, making for complex portrayals.

Ms Howard is a textbook kindergarten teacher. Simultaneously the classic ‘good Christian woman’, an authoritarian terror to the kids, and an unwilling mentor figure to Janine. Ms Schemmenti is a sassy Philly girl with ties to the mob. Jacob tries too hard to be ‘progressive’ and ends up an awkward thorn in everyone’s side. Gregory, though initially seeming like the fish-out-of-water straight man to the wacky hijinks, eventually shows he’s not as normal as everyone thinks.

Though they draw on well-worn tropes, each of the characters is a distinct individual who both fits a role in the show’s comedy, but also seems like an exaggerated version of a real person. As the show goes on and the characters grow closer, their kindness and their friendships humanise them further and endear them to us.

Even the will-they-won’t-they slow-burn romance of Jim and Pam is reflected in a subplot of the show, but it manages to keep it fresh enough that it doesn’t feel like a photocopy of the original.

And while Abbott Elementary is a quick, quirky show, full of silly quips and skits, it also touches on the reality of America’s underprivileged schools and their troubles. It is honest about the difficult situation facing many students and teachers in the system. But, at the end each episode, viewers are left with an optimistic takeaway and an urge to do more to improve a service that provides such a basic necessity to so many. Though the show is based in the US, it still feels very true to life.

A lot of my attachment to the show might be because of that connection. Most of us experience school in some form and Abbott Elementary manages to capture the specific details of how school felt. But, it also isn’t from the perspective of the kids. It’s one from those of the teachers. As someone who has a bit of experience of working as a substitute teacher at an elementary school myself, I loved that the show successfully portrays the complexity of the experience while staying light and fun. It understands that our teachers may have been some of our favourite or most hated people growing up, but at the end of the day they are human and just as flawed as we all are.

Now winding down its second season, Abbott Elementary has already received multiple award nominations, including one for ‘Best TV Series’ at the Golden Globes. The entire show is currently available on Disney+.

This article is part of Stripe, bdnews24.com's special publication focusing on culture and society from a youth perspective.